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On Air: The Little Tramp

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Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) impersonates Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp

An icon's icon: Lucy Carmichael (Lucille Ball, right, with Dick Martin) pays tribute to another classic comic figure: Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp. Photo: Ralph Crane, Time Life Pictures/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Photo: Ralph Crane, Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

Editor's note: Turns out writing and producing an 8-minute radio essay wasn't enough to get all the Chaplin out of Bob Mondello's system. He offered up a sidebar on the best of the Little Tramp onscreen; I told him to save it for the blog. Enjoy. — Trey Graham

When I was in college, I took only one film-appreciation class — cured me of them, actually. My professor had a sort of dictatorial way of talking about movies ... expected us to accept his judgment of them. As a budding critic, I was disinclined to accept without question anyone else's opinion.

One thing he made us memorize for the midterm was "the five greatest Chaplin films in order of their greatness." It was that last phrase that got me: I still remember he thought The Great Dictator was tops. But that was the one in which Chaplin was not the Little Tramp — and even then I knew that was crazy.

Chaplin made dozens of films starring the Tramp, but only five full-length features. They're all pretty glorious, and though I have my personal favorite (Modern Times), I'll not argue if you like City Lights or Gold Rush better. (We might have a dustup if your fave is The Circus.

Otherwise, I'd say just enjoy. The five features, in order not of their greatness, but of their release:

The Kid (1921) The Little Tramp adopts a tyke (Jackie Coogan) and wades into serious sentimentality for the first time. Audiences complained that Chaplin was trying to take their comedy away, but they showed up in droves. Besides, Chaplin taught Jackie Coogan all his mannerisms, and watching the Kid doing the Tramp's tricks turns out to be every bit as funny as it is adorable.

The Gold Rush (1925) Much of the picture features the Little Tramp snowbound in a cabin while he's prospecting for gold with just one other prospector (Mack Swain as Big Jim McKay). But the film's scale is so grand that it's acknowledged as one of only two great silent-comedy epics. (The other is Buster Keaton's The General.) Highlights include the dance Chaplin does with dinner rolls, the boiled shoe he serves for Thanksgiving dinner, and the cabin teetering on the edge of a cliff.

The Circus (1928) A bedraggled circus entertains absolutely no one until the Little Tramp stumbles into the ring one afternoon and cracks up the audience without meaning to. The circus manager hires him immediately — the only problem being that the Tramp only makes people laugh when he's not trying to. He can't do it on purpose. Sort of a primer on comedy ... a little strained in spots, but a must for anyone who wants to know how comedy works.

City Lights (1931) Sentiment's in full glorious flower in this story of a blind flower seller who doesn't realize that the guy who's offered to pay for an operation so she'll see again is a tramp. (Chaplin as a boxer, street sweeper, buddy to an eccentric millionaire who only likes him when he's drunk.) All hilarious, and after laughing all through it, the ending wrings tears without even trying. Thought by many critics to be the Little Tramp's finest film.

Modern Times (1936) The last film in which the Little Tramp appeared is my unabashed favorite. At the height of the Depression, a down-on-his-luck Chaplin takes a job in a factory (and gets caught in its gears), takes a night-watchman job in a department store (and becomes a Nijinksky on roller skates), goes to jail, leads a protest rally, sings a song (the only time audiences ever heard the Tramp's voice) — and ends up with "the Girl" (Paulette Goddard). Transcendent.

— Bob Mondello

Editor again here: Do make sure you check out the All Things Considered story. I promise you'll want to listen, when the audio is live, not just read it; Bob's essay is really lovely, and all the more impressive for being a radio piece about a silent film star. — Trey Graham



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I missed the beginning of Bob Mondello's radio piece on Charlie Chaplin, but was driving and listening long enough to enjoy his comments concerning my passion, silent film comedy, and his discussion of the great Charles Chaplin himself.

Mondello has done some good work in reviewing silent film, including a piece several years ago about the grace and beauty of Buster Keaton in motion.

At that time Mondello borrowed heavily from ideas expressed by Walter Kerr in his book THE SILENT CLOWNS. I was glad he credited Kerr in this piece. Kerr's book is a classic!

The Twelfth Annual Kansas Silent Film Festival at Washburn University in Topeka, KS, is scheduled for Feb. 22 & 23, 2008, and is free and open to the public. They will show Chaplin in THE BOND (1918) on Saturday night with live organ accompaniment. This NPR piece is timely in showcasing the enthusiasm for silent film we are trying to share in Topeka with all who attend.

Sent by Carol | 11:59 PM | 2-11-2008

Ah, Bob, you stole my thunder, but gloriously. I had intended to send in my "Who Moves me" based on Chaplin until I heard your intentions last week.

Nevertheless, you fulfilled every expectation and sentiment I wished to convey. A film aficionado like you, much of what moves me in film always comes back to Chaplin.

I first discovered The Little Fellow as a ten year old when I saw "Easy Street" on the old Joe Franlin Show on WOR-TV in NY. I was captivated and became a lifelong Chaplin nut ever since. It was cemented by a series run on WNET in the late '60's of all the Mutual shorts.

Unlike you, I had a very open film appreciation prof in college, who, for good or ill, allowed me independent study to research and review silent film, which opened my mind and heart to other greats of the era. But it always came back to Chaplin.

A highlight for my admitted Chaplin-mania came as a Father's Day present from my family several years ago, when the Cincinnati Pops presented a "Symphantasy" evening by showing "City Lights" on a huge screen accompanied by the symphonic sound of the Cincinnati Pops, live, from the original Chaplin score. To hear that full house, live audience laugh (and cry) cemented my belief in The Little Tramp's trancendent power. What a glorious evening.

And so, with a tip of the bowler to you, Bob,for your excellent essay, I'll give a shrug and a kick and move along that dusty old road...back to The Little Fellow. Thanks so very, very much.

Sent by Robert W. Stout | 11:07 AM | 2-12-2008

Chaplin's Tramp character belongs in this series, and I agree with everything Mondello writes. I suggest you follow up with Keaton's great stone face, a character who steadfastly deals with whatever the world throws at him. And finally Lloyd's All-American go-getter. All three of these characters were beloved icons of their time, and we see their styles and characters played for laughs to this day.

Sent by Barry Anderson | 11:58 AM | 2-12-2008

Carol: That fest in Topeka sounds terrific. No better way to see silent comedies than with live accompaniment. I've spoken at a bunch of Lloyd/Keaton/Chaplin showings with live music lately, and watching audiences -- especially kids -- get into them is a real treat.

Back in 1976, there was a touring, month-long "Silent Clowns" film fest, inspired by Kerr's book, that played repertory houses across the country. Here in D.C., /story.php?storyId=1111565">organist Lee Erwin played for it at a theater I then did advertising for. I went to every single showing, seeing most of the films two or three times. Changed my whole view of how cinema works.

Glad you're as fond of Kerr's book as I am. His columns in The New York Times were my chief inspiration when I first became a theater critic. I read "The Silent Clowns" when it came out, bought copies for all my friends when it was remaindered a couple of years later, and regard it as a sort of central text on those comedians.

And as good as he was on silent film, Kerr was even more authoritative on live theater. He painted pictures so vivid you could see the events without attending them.

Sent by Bob Mondello | 5:26 PM | 2-12-2008

Anyone who has seen the recent commercial for the Ford Sync in-car computer system has seen Buster Keaton's heritage in action. The silent clowns knew what was essentially comedic and timeless in the human condition, which is why the same pratfalls will still elicit a belly laugh from us today, and why the comedies of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd are just as fresh now as they were in the 'teens and '20s. Thanks for a lovely essay, a real treat to stumble upon on my drive home the other day.

Sent by Susan Byers paxson | 11:45 AM | 2-14-2008